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LENOX 502; AUGUST, 1948

 
 

 

 
Though morbid by nature, one of the easiest ways to chart the progress of human achievement is through the chronicling of wars.

In this exercise “progress” obviously does not refer to the betterment of humanity but rather to the advances in technology which become evident as people conceive of “better” ways to kill one another in battle.

Just as spears, swords and arrows gave way over time to rifles, cannonballs and machine guns, so too did the methods of reaching an enemy over land and sea change over time.
 

 

Take To The Skies
At the start of World War One in 1914 the cavalry was still in widespread use as Armies conscripted horses (who hadn’t been patriotic enough to enlist voluntarily and ride off to their own slaughter) to get their troops and artillery across vast expanses of territory. Meanwhile the countries with the best Navies controlled the seas which gave them an advantage that few opposing countries were able to counter.

But the advent of cars earlier in the century led to the building of tanks which gradually sent the grateful horses back to the pasture and away from all the noisy gunfire. Meanwhile another recent technological feat was in the process of taking the battles from the land and the seas into the skies as airplanes went from being nonexistent in a nation’s defenses to being one of the most vital means for achieving strategic superiority in just a few years time.

When looking back at the most renowned flying aces of the First World War what’s most telling is where they emerged from. The most famous of all, Germany’s Baron von Richtofen, had been in the cavalry at the start of hostilities but switched to flying when the opportunity arose and starting in September 1916 he wracked up 80 kills before his death in April 1918.

The Allies top pilots included Canadian William Bishop, another who began the war in the cavalry before trading a saddle for a prop stick on his way to notching 72 aerial victories. American Eddie Rickenbacker went from driving primitive race cars in civilian life, including racing in the first Indianapolis 500, to being a driver for General Black Jack Pershing in the Army. But apparently Black Jack preferred traveling at safer speeds and so Rickenbacker finagled his way into the Air Corps and while he was a late arrival, not earning his wings until 1918, he became the top American pilot with 26 victories.

René Fonck, the best French pilot, was another cavalryman turned airman who was second to only von Richtofen in total kills with 75. Britain’s Mick Mannock was an engineer before turning to flying, wracking up over 60 downed enemy planes in a brief career, while fellow Brit James McCudden had been a mechanic before deciding to let someone else work on the planes so he could achieve immortality flying them himself.

Why this look back at pilots of a war that took place three decades before the advent of rock ‘n’ roll of all things? Well, just as those famed airmen found themselves at the brink of a transformative event that few had seen coming, so too did the generation of saxophonists coming of age in the mid to late 1940’s who had a similar – though potentially less lethal – decision to make with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.

In both cases there were risks involved, the new pursuits had yet to be fully tested and though each appeared to be thrilling and adventurous at first glance there was a lot of peril in making the switch and no assurance of survival. Because of this many of them would remain on solid ground in jazz, but others would look skyward and transfer from the musical cavalry to the air corps and begin to rock.
 

The Original Jaws
Lenox Records began operations in late summer 1948 and in the August 21st issue of Billboard magazine – which incidentally went to press days before the cover date – it was announced their first eight records were to be released the next week.

Showing they had a good sense of ironic self-promotion the label issued an instrumental by saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis as their second ever record naming it Leapin’ On Lenox. Creatively they were off to a good start, at least where inventive titles were concerned, a trend they’d continue better than most companies during their short lifespan.

As for what style of music this was… well, that was sort of up in the air.

Eddie Davis had gotten the nickname “Lockjaw” based on an earlier record he’d released, one of a long line in which they used medical conditions as titles (much like soul food staples were now about to be hauled out for rock instrumentals… hey, it helps to have a gimmick!). Needing a nickname to stand out Davis adopted the “Lockjaw” persona which also referenced his fierce playing style in a way, although that song was merely good rapidly paced jazz.

But that’s what he was during this period – a jazz musician, since of course that was the dominant style of sax based music. As 1940’s jazz goes it’s certainly nice enough, his playing is varied on the sides and he always possessed a good tone but the material is not in any way pointing to what rock was about to unleash on the world.

That changed rather abruptly upon signing with Lenox Records, a newly formed off-shoot of the Continental label which in many ways was a ploy to get around the ongoing recording ban that curtailed the production of new records. What Lenox would do is re-release older sides already put out on Continental and mix those in with newly cut material hoping the musician’s union wouldn’t catch on to it, thinking they were ALL older sides pulled from the vaults.

Whether that subterfuge had anything to do with his decision to head into a less refined part of town, perhaps figuring if they were breaking laws he might as well give them something less “worthy” in return, or more likely Davis was simply noticing the emerging trend that was already starting to take place in this new field of music and he decided to test the waters himself. If these records didn’t connect who would really notice them on a brand new label with no track record and he probably reasoned he could return to the more cultured jazz field when the ban lifted.

So searching for suitable material he first laid down an instrumental version of Nellie Lutcher’s He’s A Real Gone Guy, something that certainly wasn’t rock – her borther Joe was as close as she’d get to rock ‘n’ roll and he even remained on the far edges of the style – but Davis did muscle-up the arrangement a good deal, though tied to the more pop-jazz hipster melody of Lutcher meant there was only so far he could take it.

The same wasn’t true for Leapin’ On Lenox however, which while not fully committing to the rock aesthetics in every way it was definitely close enough to qualify which was probably fine by Lenox Records who saw the response the purer sax-led rock instrumentals were getting and hoped this would be their ticket to a big payoff as well.
 


 
 

Prepare For Take Off
Launched off the turntable by his most insistent playing to date, Davis checks off the first requirement for rock ‘n’ roll before we’re five seconds into the record with that declarative intro, rough, loud and gutsy. The piano that follows seems confused by this assertiveness and tries pulling it back into safer jazz-based territory and the drummer follows suit lightly tapping the cymbal but even as Davis himself eases back on the intensity his lines are of the short insistent riff variety, largely eschewing melody in favor of a repetitive rhythmic churning.

The drummer is the first to catch on to the changed outlook and delivers some smashing turnarounds to cue Lockjaw’s more assertive follow-up riff as the piano wakes up and contributes a two-fisted interlude of its own.

Now things start to settle in to a more consistently harsh vibe, but that vibe – while certainly admirable for a musician who’d faithfully stuck to more restrained and traditional jazz approaches on previous records – is still not quite up to (or is it “down to”) the level of debauchery being explored by the growing brigade of rock sax maniacs who were making such a racket as summer went on.

Leapin’ On Lenox sort of straddles that line between noisy and crude rock and swaggering rough-hewn jazz. The more frantic he plays and the more the notes pile up on one another, the closer to the rock jungle he gets. When he lets the song breathe more (enabling you to even pick up the stand-up bass’s notes) then you think he might be having second thoughts about his decent into a more primitive environment, but because he never fully relinquishes his seedier tone, injecting even the least startling lines with a certain amount of grit, it manages to become a welcome addition to any self-respecting rock fan’s collection.

If there’s a problem with the record it’s the fact it doesn’t seem to have a firm direction in mind, either musically, such as finding a specific melodic or rhythmic hook and going back to it consistently to pull you back in, nor does it have the kind of game plan where it’s not about what you play but rather how you play it. In the latter approach you might toss in any number of ideas along the way but the goal is to build and build the anticipation, teasing the listener by veering ever closer to the edge of sanity, then pulling the rug out from beneath them and just going for the jugular and breaking out every vulgar and tasteless trick you know to send them over the top.

Davis sort of tries that, getting increasingly worked up by the last third, but he never goes for broke and as a result, while you’re generally satisfied with what you heard (let’s face it, the man can play saxophone better than most mortals) you’d have preferred he took you even further into the wilds.
 


 

Airborne
It wouldn’t be fair to tie Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis back in fully with the World War One flying aces we kicked off the review with even though the initial analogy holds true.

There WAS a similar sense of wanting to try something which seemed daringly reckless when it began for many sax players in the late 1940’s as rock appeared on the radar and offered new possibilities that might in fact leave you shot down over the countryside, a flaming wreckage with the unrecognizable remains of many skilled pilots.

Davis would dabble in rock briefly, both with later releases on Lenox and other labels, as well as backing up his vocalist brother Carl on a few sides, but he’d eventually find his way back to jazz, first with Count Basie and then leading his own crew, which ironically would include another musician, Doc Bagby, with rock credentials of his own.

Lockjaw wouldn’t crash and burn as a result of his brief association with rock in other words. He’d become one of the most respected jazz saxophonists of his era and different enough in his playing to never be mistaken for anyone else.

The question has to be asked though, just how much of that later style was drawn from his exposure to rock ‘n’ roll? These early years of rock found the sax at the forefront of the revolution and it was pulling in musicians left and right from the jazz orbit, such as the Hal Singer whose own Cornbread would help to set the tone for rock’s aggressive sound.

Davis was someone who had might’ve taken his place alongside Singer as a rocker had he stuck with it longer, but I think at least some of his approach came about thanks to what he saw firsthand in rock circles. Though his avowed idols were jazzmen like Ben Webster, Lockjaw himself admitted that the reason he picked up the sax in the first place wasn’t because of any musical inspirations but rather because it was the instrument that got the most attention and had the most flash as he wanted to live the life of girls and acclaim that went with it.

So from that standpoint his rock allusions are a better fit and perhaps his ultimate classification as a jazz musician owed more to when he turned professional than to the idea that he saw jazz as his true métier.
 

 
He’d have surely been a hit in rock had he kept with it, but he did alright as it was however and to show that his affinity for this sound never left Leapin’ On Lenox was the title track of a mid-70’s album he cut, a little toned down than what he displays here, but still the same Jaws, tough and irascible.

Come to think of it those are the two qualities that he always shared with rock and though he didn’t fly in these skies for very long, he looked pretty good in the cockpit all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)